One thing this year has reminded me of is it’s possible to be creative and get your kicks close to home. With events being cancelled, and travel overseas a no go, it’s been cool to discover new trails and challenges in Scotland.
I recently got in touch with him so we could meet up for a ride. I was thinking of a 3 or 4 hour mountain bike ride on the rad trails of the Tweed Valley. He came back to me with a screenshot of the weather forecast in Ballater, a Royal Burgh in Aberdeenshire on the River Dee. What was he up to...?
The Deeside Trail has two variations, a regular route and a long one. The long route is 154 miles with around 16,500 feet of climbing. Starting and finishing in Ballater, the trails follow both banks of the River Dee as it flows from its source high on the sub-arctic Cairngorm plateau to the lowlands of Aberdeenshire. The route includes fast sections of gravel roads, double track through the remote ancient pine forests of Royal Deeside, as well as technical singletrack high up on the open mountainsides of the Cairngorm National Park.
It’s recommended that riders bikepack the route over 3 days. However, the route was developed as an individual time trial race, similar to the Capital Trail, Cairngorm Loop, and Highland Trail 550. The current fastest known time for the long Deeside Trail is 23 hours and 27 minutes, set by Angus Hamilton in June 2017.
When Mark suggested we have a crack at the long Deeside Trail I hoped we would spread the ride over 2 days. However, with mountain bothies closed due to covid, Mark was keen that we go all in to see how things would unfold.
Just a couple of days later we got together in Ballater ready for a 4:00am start the following day. We had no idea if it was realistic that we would even finish the route as the whole thing was new to us. Riding my mountain bike for over 12 hours was uncharted territory. Add in that due to the time of year we would be starting and finishing the ride in darkness, it wasn't going to be easy.
The next morning we set off from Banchory a little before 5am and climbed through the darkness into Scolty Woods. Scolty is a mountain bike hotspot for Aberdeenshire locals and the woods are littered with singletrack. We were off to a fun start as we soon descended back towards the river on rooty singletrack, trying to spot the best lines with our lights.
Night riding isn't something I do very often. In fact, the last time I rode any great distance in darkness was for Bikepack to Belgium back in 2018. Riding at night adds to the adventure, especially when you've no idea where you are. We were just following the route on my Wahoo. As dawn broke we'd been riding for 2 and a half hours and had covered 20 miles of the planned 156. This was setting up to be a long day.
We reached the Royal Burgh of Ballater after 4 hours having covered 32 miles. Ballater presented one of three opportunities to stock up on food and water. On a ride like this you burn through more calories than you can consume. It's really important to keep eating and try to pace your rides so that you burn fat rather than carbohydrates, as you will definitely run out of energy at some point.
We quickly stocked up on supplies and seemingly flew up the gravel road through Glen Muick. The route gradually climbed out of the village, before turning right and up steeply on some beautiful, woodland singletrack. This delivered us onto the open hillsides above, where we continued to climb. As we rolled over the hilltop we were treated to a fast, sandy doubletrack descent which we instantly recognised from pictures we'd studied before the ride.
Our goal was to steadily make progress, allowing the minutes and miles to tick by as we pedalled, talked and took it all in. This section of the ride was a brilliant mix of fast estate roads and singletrack trails through Ballochbuie Forest, home to Scotland's Pyramid. When we reached Invercauld Bridge we knew it wasn't too far for our next stop for supplies.
I don't think I've ever been to Braemar before, and on this visit, I'd describe my first impressions as Regal Scots. It may not come as a surprise that the British Royal Family often visit Royal Deeside, the region that Braemar, Ballater, Banchory and Balmoral Castle are all found. Each year the burgh hosts The Braemar Gathering, a Highland Games which has taken place since 1832. It is attended annually by the Royal Family and apparently, Queen Elizabeth II has attended every year since 1952.
For us, it was a quick supermarket sweep of the local Co-op, grabbing as many treats and energy drinks as possible. The next leg of the ride would be the most remote, and the longest time away from civilisation. It had just turned 11:00 am and we'd been riding for 6 hours and 15 minutes covering 60 of the 156 miles. We had another 8 hours of daylight remaining.
Braemar is known as the gateway to the Cairngorms, and we would soon venture deep into the National Park towards Ben MacDui, Britain's second-highest mountain. We accessed the mountains by gravel road initially, then followed the banks of the river on singletrack as we climbed steadily into the mountains on the Lairig Ghru. This section of the route was breathtaking. I felt a real sense of freedom and adventure when riding in the remote landscape. It was just us and the mountains.
The bad news is that for much of this section our pace really dropped as we were forced to dismount and walk frequently. It took us 1 hour and 15 minutes to cover less than 5 miles and gain 500 feet of elevation. The good news is that we were then gifted with a fun and technical singletrack descent back into Glen Lui.
When we hit the foot of the Glen we were at half distance and had been riding for 9 hours and 40 minutes. Climbing out of Glen Lui we had to tackle a steep ascent before dropping back down to Allt an Dubh Ghlinne, a big river crossing. Next, we followed the Water of Quoich on some fun but challenging singletrack to meet the path to Beinn a Bhuird.
Making our way east into Glen Gairn things got slow again as we negotiated streams, rivers, and bogs. When scouting this section on the map we had visualised a fast double track, gently descending for about 20 miles. Things couldn't have been much more different from what we had hoped for. Thankfully, after an hour of struggle, we hit the fast estate roads and drovers path we had dreamt of.
13 hours after we departed Banchory we landed in Ballater for the second time. This was our final chance to stock up on food and water before riding into unknown darkness for the last 45 miles. Leaving Ballater we had renewed enthusiasm. We agreed that we'd underestimated the technicality and physical difficulty of the route, but we were really enjoying the challenge.
I hadn't studied the final part of the route in detail, but I knew there was at least one significant climb remaining. As we left Tarland Trails the gradual road climb turned to trail, and pitched upwards into the darkness. Rain began to fall and the temperature noticeably dropped. Towards the top of the climb, I was forced to dismount and push due to the steepness and rutted nature of the trail. As we topped out on the summit of Pressendye the temperature dropped to 1-degree Celcius. We descended on slick, grassy singletrack and my hands were in pain just holding on to the bars.
After the descent I was beginning to feel really cold. We lifted our bikes over two gates and began climbing on a soft, wet trail. Following the previous climb, I wanted to check the route profile once more so I could prepare myself mentally for what we had in store. We stopped to look at the route and the climbing definitely wasn't over. Mark and I reassured each other that we would continue - 'it would just take as long as it would take'. I'm not ashamed to admit that by this point I was struggling.
We began climbing and I noticed that my route map had frozen. Without the directions from my GPS, we couldn't follow the route. We considered our options as the rain fell, but this was all I needed to propose to Mark that we retrace our steps to the road and make our way back to Banchory. After a few minutes trying to think of alternatives, we agreed that bailing out was the wisest option and were on our way.
In hindsight, there were a few things that we could have done to reboot the map. It is very common for GPS devices to freeze or run out of battery during ultra-endurance challenges, especially in harsh and cold conditions. We had a spare battery pack, and we could have restarted the head unit and reloaded the map. However, the longer we were stopped for, the colder I was getting. It was a real concern for me.
The ride back passed quickly. We arrived in Banchory at 11 pm, about 18 hours after we had left. Once in the hotel room, I quickly got out of my cold, wet kit and into a hot shower. When I got out of the shower I was still shaking, so I got dry and fully dressed, with a warm hat and insulated vest. Fully clothed, in bed, and drinking hot tea, my teeth were still chattering. I slowly warmed up and slept fully clothed.
On reflection, the Deeside Trail is one of the most beautiful and enjoyable rides I've ever done. For the majority of the ride I was buzzing. To get so close to finishing the full, long route was really satisfying, and I think we exceeded our expectations. I'm already thinking about a return next spring when the weather will be kinder and daylight lasts longer.
I'd add that the Deeside Trail is one of the most challenging routes I've ridden yet. The difficulty comes from the long duration combined with the technically. It is a relentless challenge. If you're thinking about tackling the Deeside Trail I'd recommend you leave your gravel bike at home. This is definitely a route for a mountain bike. You should also be prepared for long durations in very remote, mountain environments. You're not at the trail centre any more.
If you'd like to see more of our Deeside Trail attempt then you can check it out on Strava.
'til next time,